A sort of semi-Ronde, Sarah Phelps's play consists of six sexual (or pre- or post-sexual) encounters. The couplings don't overlap as precisely as they do in Schnitzler's drama, but we do see the same people with different partners. There's no dancing, but, if we take that activity as a substitute for sex, the play bears out the title's intimation that, no matter how expert we are, a new person can make us feel we're starting from square one.
That trope, however, does not suggest a thrilling fresh start, but a return to drudgery. For Frances, ditched by her one true love, sex is simply a physical demand. But Russell, who fulfills it, wants to talk as well, even "do girlfriend-boyfriend stuff". He insists, "We have a – I think we have a connection." She says, "There's no such thing."
Frances still has an emotional connection with Owen, with whom she last had sex on the day of his wedding to a spoilt rich girl. It's no surprise, then, that later scenes show Owen and his wife, Julia, with others, and not very happy with them, either. Saying "good morning and goodbye" to a girl he picked up the night before, Owen makes a nice, honest apology. "I know I was rough. I know I was. And it's nothing to do with you. It's just that you look so like someone." Meanwhile, Julia is having it off at home with the handyman, or trying to. She orders him to insult her, to condescend to her, so as to make the sex more exciting. When he tells her she's despicable, she says she's becoming aroused; but he explains that he's not putting on an act.
Modern Dance for Beginners is well written on an undemanding level, but its form and premise are predictable, its ambitions not exactly stellar. Once again we're shown that, in this fragmented, materialistic times, it's impossible to love and be happy, even if (or especially if) you're young, articulate, and nice-looking. To raise the cliché count even higher, three, or maybe four, of the eight characters are "media publishing executives". Even taking their brevity and narrowness into account (the play is only 70 minutes), the sketches are superficial, most of them petering out inconclusively. This last characteristic and the graphic language (Frances says to Russell, "This isn't intimacy. It's forensic science") are not sufficient to transform this material from television skit to theatrical experience.
Yet Modern Dance for Beginners is never less than agreeable to watch, the credit going to Jonathan Lloyd's direction, Soutra Gilmour's dependably precise, attractive set, and, most of all, the actors who play all the parts. Justin Salinger has a sweet, gentle quality that softens, without traducing, the unpleasant people he impersonates. Nicola Walker counters this with yet another excellent portrait of a tough broad; this actress is so good at doing abrasive-yet-vulnerable that, as here and in her last play, Free, she makes playwrights who haven't done enough work look much better than they should.
To 19 October (020-7478 0100)
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